Wednesday 16 April 2014

Fiona Doyle on surviving an abusive childhood

People say 'Oh you've got closure now – you can move on'. I don't think I will ever get closure ...

'Having found my voice I want to continue to speak out. Speaking out is power. Hearing my story will make it easier for the next person'

The laughter is a surprise. Fiona Doyle has a wry, flinty manner and a ready smile. If you didn't know – and at this stage everybody in the country DOES know – you would never guess that she suffered, throughout her childhood, the most horrific sexual abuse. Aged 47, she greets the world with a determined grin and an informal manner. She doesn't strike you as a victim. She is a survivor.


Doyle, from Dun Laoghaire, in Co Dublin, has written a book about the abuse, which her father Patrick O'Brien began to inflict upon her the night before her First Communion and which continued for a decade.

'Too Many Tears' is a wrenching read and some of the darkest chapters concern the high-profile sentencing of O'Brien last February, how it threatened to descend into farce when the judge suspended three quarters of the 12-year jail term and allowed a convicted child abuser to walk free on bail, pending appeal.

Sitting near the front of the courtroom, Doyle felt as if she was suffering the abuse all over again. Initially, she had hesitated in seeking justice against her father, worried that he might be found not guilty. What would she do with her feelings then? But this was worse in a way. He had admitted to his crimes and, aged 72, a judge had let him stand up and walk out of the courthouse.

"I fell to bits," she says. "At the start of the case, I told myself, 'it doesn't matter what he gets as long as it is proven that he is guilty – as long as I am vindicated'. And all of a sudden, it DID matter what he got. As he was let walk free, it brought back a whole load of the feelings – the sense that you are worthless, that nothing you do is right. You are stupid and hopeless at everything."

Doyle returned to her home in Gorey where she lives with her husband, Jim. She locked herself in her room and cried all evening. That night something extraordinary happened. She switched on the television and discovered there was a national outcry.

"Strangers, people who had never met me, were standing up and fighting my corner. I thought, the least I can do is stand up and fight myself too. They gave me a kick up the backside, which I needed on a day I was dangerously low. It was like everybody had picked me up and carried me aloft."

Revulsion at the verdict – and at the scenes of O'Brien exiting court – was universal. Two days later, O'Brien was summoned before the judge once again and told bail was withdrawn.

"It gives me hope," says Doyle. "I hope I can encourage others who have gone through what I did. Going public was the best thing I could do. I am now living my life and everyone knows about me. I don't have to lie to anyone – the shame and the guilt is gone. I would love to be able to bottle up what I feel and give it to every abuse victim out there. To tell them that there is a difference [after you go public and pursue justice] – your life DOES change afterwards."

In her book, she writes that, above all, she hopes to encourage abuse victims to speak out.

"Having found my voice I want to continue to speak out. Speaking out is power and people seem willing to listen. So I will speak out as much as I can. I can talk about my experience; tell people about my battle; and, yes, it was a battle. Hearing it will make it easier for the next person, I hope."

It has taken a long time for her to get here. Through the bulk of her adult life she was gripped by feelings of inadequacy and by an inchoate rage – directed inwards against herself as much as outwards against her father. Aged 21, with her first marriage in tatters, and her father living across the road from her in the same housing estate, she tried to kill herself with an overdose of tablets. On the way to hospital, she pleaded with the doctors to let her be, to leave her to die. She just couldn't see how she might be able to go on living. Her sense of worthlessness was all-consuming.

"My first marriage had broken up," she recalls. "We had three young kids. I couldn't cope. I felt so useless, that I could do nothing right. In my own mind, I wasn't a proper mother. It all got on top of me. I found myself swallowing a lot of paracetamol. Then I realised that it would be my children who would find my body. So I admitted to my ex-husband what I had done. He called the ambulance. Even then, I refused to let them pump my stomach."

It was while recovering that she started to set her experiences down in writing. She was compelled to explain to her children (she had three at the time and now has six) what she had gone through, but couldn't bear to sit them down and tell them to their faces. So she wrote instead.

"It was never my intention to write a book," she says. "I was determined to give something to my daughter so she could read it. I had to tell her about the abuse. I couldn't stand the idea of seeing the hurt in her face. I found it was therapeutic."

Doyle resists giving her story a Hollywood gloss. She is happier, more confident today – bravely getting on with her life. Still, the demons never leave and can surface out of the blue.

"People say 'oh, you've got closure now – you can move on'. I don't think you will ever get closure. You accept what happened. You handle living with your demons a bit better. I will never move on. I will always be affected by the abuse. I live with it, even if I don't let it control my life or the decisions I make.

"It can come upon you out of nowhere. It can be as simple as the good summer we've just had. It's difficult to take my kids to the seaside because my father would abuse me at the beach. So anything can trigger it . It is a matter of living with it, living alongside it, rather than letting it control you."

She believes that meeting her second husband was her salvation. He had a drink problem, she was damaged to her core, struggling to respect herself. They crossed paths in the late 90s, when she was head of security at a club in Dublin. They got chatting, discovered they shared a birthday and, soon afterwards, romance blossomed. They have been there for each other ever since. She helped him stop drinking; he has been her rock through the hard days.

"Even as I was writing the book, certain events prompted a memory," she says. "Through the court case I would get flashbacks. I found it difficult. Jim is such a good guy. He was always there. Sometimes I'd tell him about the flashbacks, sometimes I wouldn't – it would be too awful. He was always very careful and gentle."

Because of the abuse, Doyle believes she grew up with a profoundly dislocated sense of how to interact with other people. As a young woman, she found it difficult to get along with others. It wasn't until the birth of her first daughter Kelly that she felt a real connection with another person.

"I didn't understand what 'love' meant, up until then," she says.

"I had my first child and looked into her big brown eyes. It was my first sense of love. I didn't have an awareness of how to handle those feelings. I had no parenting school. I had to teach myself. I did parenting courses. The affection I felt towards my children was alien to me."

One of the most surprising sections in the book concerns her cosmetic surgery. It started when she was 22 and weighed 18 stone. She had a tummy tuck and was astonished at the results.

Her self-esteem rose, people commented favourably on her appearance. She felt like a 'new' Fiona. On a follow-up visit, the clinic offered her Botox in return for some promotional work and modelling.

"I enjoyed the whole experience," she tells in the book. "It feltgood. I started to look at myself even more, thinking, 'well, what if I change other things'."

She returned for further treatments. First, a breast reduction that took her from a 44DD to a 38DD. "Operation number three was on my thighs to cut away the fat. It cost another €4,000. Did I care? No, I was on a roll." A gastric-band procedure followed, which boosted her confidence further yet.

"Physically I was happy with myself. My gastric band was working great and I was losing weight. I also had my eyes lifted. But as time went on, all these treatments couldn't take the loneliness away, or lessen my sense of isolation."

Doyle has a complicated relationship with her father. She is full of loathing towards O'Brien. And yet, he remains her father.

"I still love... my dad," she says. "I'm not going to fight that feeling. I won't let the hate grow inside and make me sick. If you do that, it will turn nasty and twisted. I won't let that happen. I still love [him]. I don't like the person he is. He will always be my father. I refuse to let the hate in."

The impression you get is of a person who has acknowledged the terrible events that have happened and is getting on with her life.

In Gorey, Doyle lives a happy, outdoors-y existence. She takes long, scenic walks, has a wide circle of friends, is excited about her daughter's recent engagement (she has been over at her house today, filling it with balloons) .

"Life was never normal for me," she says. "I'm not going to pretend my life is normal today. There is no getting over what I've gone through.

"Strange as it sounds, however, my life is a lot 'lighter'. I used to carry the shame and the guilt around.

"I don't carry them with me any more. I've left it behind."

'Too Many Tears' is published by Penguin Ireland on Thursday.

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